Hardwood floor finishes are not all the same. Each has distinct qualities that make it ideal for certain situations and less-ideal for others.
On this page, we’ll help you understand the differences between the finishes. With this knowledge, you can better determine the best finish for your hardwood floors.
What is Hardwood Floor Finish?
Floor finish is a liquid chemical that’s applied to hardwood floors to create a protective layer that makes the floor more durable against wear, impact, and water damage. Floor finish is also aesthetically pleasing. A new coat can add vitality and color to your room.
There are many types of hardwood floor finishes on the market. They have different qualities and different purposes. We’ll discuss them below.
Water-based polyurethane is a clear, smooth, shiny finish that is easy to apply and clean. It emits little odor and few volatile organic compounds (better known as VOCs).
A less-desirable aspect of water-based polyurethane floor finish is that its high-gloss finish accentuates scratches and scrapes. It does come in satin and semi-gloss options that can mute those undesirable effects to some extent, though.
This is a highly durable floor finish option that is easy to clean and care for.
Oil-based polyurethane is affordable, durable, moisture-resistant, and easy to maintain. It’s made of synthetic resins, plasticizers, and linseed oil.
Oil-based polyurethane is great for high-traffic areas. On the negative side, it’s flammable, has a tendency to yellow over time (though some people like this effect), dries slowly, and emits a lot of VOCs—to be sure to wear a respirator while applying it.
This floor finish come in semi-gloss, high-gloss, and satin sheens. Its amber tint has a warmth that many people appreciate.
Another entry in the urethane family is notable for its extreme durability. It’s possibly the most durable option on this list. On the flip side, it generates a high level of VOCs and is very difficult to apply. This finish is usually only applied by professionals. Some do-it-yourselfers use it, but it’s challenging.
Moisture-based urethane was designed for bowling alleys. It has a very high shine and resistance to damage of all kinds.
The VOCs emitted are so high that you will need to be out of the house for one to two weeks after application is completed. The moisture base also makes this urethane sensitive to its environment at time of application. It won’t cure or dry evenly on dry days and might dry too fast on highly humid days. This sensitivity, as well as the health hazard of its VOCs, are why its usually used only by professionals.
Wax is easy to apply to hardwood floors and easy to touchup. It emits little odor and few VOCs. It has low sheen and dries quickly, meaning you can walk on waxed floors only hours after application. Not only that, but it’s possibly the easiest-to-apply of the wood floor finishes.
Applying wax is intensive, though. The final product isn’t very durable. It yellows and darkens over time, and many people don’t like the visual effect of this.
Wax was the standard floor finish for hardwood floors before polyurethane was developed in the 1960s. It has a natural appearance that appeals to many people. It comes in liquid and paste varieties.
Be careful when choosing wax finish. It can’t be easily removed if you decide to switch to polyurethane later. It shouldn’t be viewed as a short-term option because it has long-term consequences. Make sure it’s the one you want for the long haul.
Like wax, shellac is one of the older hardwood floor finishes. It’s made from denatured alcohol and the secretions of an Asian insect called a lac bug. It’s natural, meaning it doesn’t emit many VOCs. Likewise, it’s easy to work with, dries quickly, and easy to repair. Furthermore, it’s ideal for tropical woods, which are more oily than other options.
Shellac is also not very durable. It’s highly flammable.
Shellac has a high-gloss, orange-tinted finish. It has a higher tendency than other hardwood floor finishes to show stains and water spots. It’s also vulnerable to damage from ammonia and alcohol.
You can buff wax over a shellac floor, but you can’t put polyurethane over it, so you’d have to strip the shellac away. This is a fairly labor-intensive and potentially damaging process, so keep your long-term goals in mind before going with shellac.
Penetrating Oil Sealer
This is not a common choice in the modern age. It was a popular one before the 1960s when polyurethane sealer was invented.
Some people still prefer this low-shine finish for the fact that it’s a natural product that is easy to apply and great at accentuating the natural beauty of whatever wood it’s applied to. The negatives of the sealer are that it’s got poor durability, it’s expensive, and it requires frequent reapplication. In the modern age, it’s used mostly by people restoring or maintaining historic homes.
Penetrating oils do as their name suggests—they penetrate into wood pores. This means that they don’t leave the “shell” that most finishes leave on hardwood floors. People who use this product will often put a coat of wax over top of it for more protection.
This extremely durable finish (which is sometimes called a Swedish finish) is great for exotic woods and is at the peak of hardwood floor finishes. It’s as durable as you get and gives wood grain a beautiful highlight.
It dries very quickly. Likewise, it’s also very flammable and expensive. The base is alcohol, but it uses acid for curing. Because of the speed with which it dries, its flammability, and the VOCs it emits, this is really an option for professionals rather than amateurs.
When it comes to sheer durability, aluminum oxide finishes are king. This is a great finish for high-traffic areas pretty much anywhere. Because of its durability, it requires very little maintenance.
In a way, its greatest pro is also its greatest con. This finish is very tough to refinish or touch up.
Aluminum oxide is only used on prefinished hardwood floors. It’s not one for do-it-yourselfers.
This is another option that was often used before the creation of polyurethane. It’s still a durable choice that gives floors a pleasing, amber coloration.
Varnish has a powerful odor and emits a lot of VOCs.
UV Floor Finishes
The greatest benefit to UV floor finish, which is used with UV curing technology, is its speed of drying. This makes it a popular choice for commercial construction, especially businesses such as restaurants that need to get back to business as fast as possible.
UV floor finished hardwood floors are very resistant to wear and tear.
Acrylic Impregnated Finish
This is another choice predominantly used in commercial settings. It’s highly durable and ideal for areas that see a lot of traffic.
The acrylic finish is injected into the wood planks.
What to Choose
As you can see from the explanations above, the right choice for your flooring depends upon your specific needs and vision. There are various factors to consider, ranging from cost to durability to aesthetics. There is not “right” answer—only the answer that’s right for you.
If you’re not sure which way to go, contact a professional in your area. They will help you figure out the best option and, if you decide you’d prefer to leave it to the pros, can do the work for you.
There is no “one size fits all” solution here! Each wood floor and its condition are unique. We will provide you with the best and most cost-efficient solution for your floors.
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As a general rule, professionally refinished hardwood floors last 5 times longer vs DIY.